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Keys Challenge: Finding Shelter After The Storm

Nancy Klingener
Dean Thomson lived on a boat off Key West. Now he's staying at a shelter on Summerland Key but intends to return to Key West when he can.

Before Hurricane Irma, the Florida Keys had an acute shortage of affordable housing.

And the storm's most devastating impact was on the places that were most affordable — boats and mobile homes. 

For now, the Red Cross is still operating shelters in the Keys for those with nowhere else to go.

"This is the fifth shelter I've been in," said Dean Thomson, who was staying this week at the Boy Scout SeaBase on Summerland Key.

Thomson lived on a boat off Key West, where he does odd jobs. He evacuated to the mainland on a city bus before Irma.

Though he had only lived in the Keys for a year and a half before the hurricane, Thomson said he's determined to stay.

Credit Tom Hudson / WLRN
The Coral Shores Estates mobile home neighborhood on Little Torch Key suffered extensive damage because of Hurricane Irma.

"I'm from Michigan. I've been through many snow storms, ice storms and stuff," he said. "This was kind of a pain in the butt. But I survived it."

Monroe County is working with FEMA and the state to come up with immediate and longer-term options for residents whose homes are destroyed or uninhabitable while they are repaired.

A top FEMA official told Monroe County this week that so far 27 families have been approved for temporary trailers and that the county has been approved for a program called Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power, according to a county press release. The STEP program helps people stay in their homes while they are under repair.

Monroe County Mayor George Neugent said Tuesday that, after the immediate problem of debris removal, housing is the biggest challenge facing the Keys after Hurricane Irma.

He compared the demand for housing to "water behind the dam — it's building up and busting loose now, where people are returning and finding their house uninhabitable," he said.

He said the county's immediate priority is finding "temporary long-term housing," like FEMA trailers.

"To be fair, the inventory of those units were depleted because of Harvey and also other counties within the state," he said. Many in the Keys, for now, are staying with friends.

"That's a short-term fix, also," Neugent said. "We need to get focused on producing more housing for the demand that's taking place right now."

Neugent suggested anyone with questions about housing call the county's emergency operations center at 800-955-5504 to find out what options are available.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.
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